saturday review – 17th June 2023
Pages 4 & 5
That’s life, isn’t it?
Does anyone get through unscathed?’
Debbie Harry talks to Ed Potton about smutty jokes, being flashed by David Bowie – and playing Glastonbury at 77
This isn’t what you’d expect from Debbie Harry. Having offered her two cents on beyoncé, Truman Capote, Andy Warhol and Nile Rodgers and being flashed at by David Bowie (more on that later), the Blondie frontwoman has moved on to her festival shows. Harry, 77, and her band are playing Glastonbury next Sunday and a week later support her old mate Iggy Pop at Dog Day Afternoon in London.
“Iggy Pop?” she says slyly. “I’m sitting on his face right now.” For a moment I’m speechless. It seems an unlikely thing to be doing during a Zoom interview, but Harry has had a wild life. Then, with a flourish, she holds up the cushion she has been perched on, which bears a picture of Mr Pop. She really is sitting on Iggy’s face. “I really am!” she says delightedly. “Ha ha!”
So no, this isn’t what you’d expect from Harry. Imperious queen of CBGB, singer and co-writer of Atomic, Rapture and Heart of Glass and pioneer of punk, disco and hip-hop? Certainly. Owner of the most devastating cheekbones in Christendom? Quite possibly. But smutty practical joker? Apparently, even terrifyingly cool pop-cultural icons can mellow.
Not that she has ever lacked a sense of humour: as far back as 1988 she called one of her compilation albums Once More into the Bleach. Harry’s hair gave her band their name, inspired by what builders would shout at her in the street. Today I’m not sure whether the locks are peroxide or silver, but either way she looks a good decade younger than her age.
This will be Blondie’s third time playing Glastonbury, after 1999 and 2014. “The first time I was wearing an Elsa Schiaparelli hat, so I think I was very happy about that,” she says. “It was red flowers on a straw bucket and I thought I was really chic.” She was – I’ve seen the pictures. On one of those trips the band broke into Stonehenge to pay tribute. “The boys were all very excited and they climbed over the fence, and ran over and touched the stone.” So Harry watched from a safe distance? “Well, I wasn’t about to climb that fence.” Was she wearing something impractical? A pause. “Probably.”
She divides her time between an apartment in New York and a house in New Jersey, from where she is speaking today. She grew up in New Jersey, having been born in Miami and adopted as a baby by a lower-middle-class couple who named her Angela. Her birth mother, she later discovered, was a concert pianist, so there could have been a disposition towards music, but she never granted Harry permission to make contact.
Harry has been synonymous with New York since the mid-Seventies, when she was one of the edgiest and most exciting denizens of what was then the edgiest and most exciting city in the world. Recently, though, “my feelings about living in New York changed a little bit”, she says. “I lived in the city for I don’t know how many years – 40? I like it here in New Jersey because it’s private.”
She’s still in NYC a lot, she stresses. “Yesterday I was there visiting Chris and Barbara.” That’s Chris Stein, the guitarist with whom she founded Blondie in 1974 and who wrote many of their hits and was Harry’s romantic partner for more than a decade before they split in the Eighties. She is still close to Stein and his wife, the actress Barbara Sicuranza, and godmother to their two daughters. Harry never married or had children and is, she says, happily single, sharing her home with two Japanese chin dogs.
The memories, you suspect, do her just fine. When she was on tour with Bowie and Pop in 1977, Harry offered them her wrap of cocaine. Bowie thanked her by taking out his penis. “David’s size was notorious, of course, and he loved to pull it out with both men and women,” she wrote in her autobiography, Face It. “It was so adorable, funny and sexy.” Some may have demurred, had they been in a similar situation. “I think you should rethink that,” Harry says with a laugh. “Most women would really die to be in that room.” Quite a few men too. “Absolutely. You have to consider the context – I was a consenting adult, shall we say. I believe that that is really the borderline.”
There have been times when she didn’t consent, from the man who exposed himself to her when she was eight, to the jazz drummer Buddy Rich propositioning her at 12, to the burglar who raped her at knife-point after following her and Stein into their loft on the Lower East Side. Like many women in the music scene then, Harry developed a nonchalant toughness and an ability to laugh things off. She even claimed in her book to be more upset by the guitars the burglar took than by being raped. Things are starting to change. “It seems that way,” Harry says. Knowledge is power, as they say. One can only hope for the best. The idea that women perhaps know themselves and know more about their sexuality and their positive qualities is invaluable.”
Harry and Stein endured some grim years in the Eighties, she struggling with heroin addiction, he with an autoimmune disease that almost killed him. They owed millions in taxes, lost their home and struggled to pay Stein’s medical bills as he lay in hospital, close to death. “It sucked, basically. I guess it was something cultural as well as individual,” Harry says, referring to the general air of decadence and decay. “I sort of feel like I was swept along in some cases. But then in some ways it was very educational, and thank God that we both survived all of that bullshit. That’s life, sin’t it? Does anybody get through unscathed?”
Anyone romanticising the New York of Harry’s heyday should read the description in her book of CBGB, the club in the East Village that was the centre of the American punk-rock universe. “There was an alley at the back full of rubbish, rats, pissed-on garbage and shards of broken glass,” she wrote. “Inside, the club had its own special reek – a pungent compound of stale beer, cigarette smoke, dog shit and body odour.” Delicious.
Yet she relished the freedom of a time without social media. “I remember performing on stage at CBGB and thinking to myself, ‘I’m really having a great time and no one’s ever gonna see this except these 25 people that are here,'” she says. “It was a great way to learn to perform – I wasn’t being microscopically observed.”
Contrast that with Coachella, the clean, sunlit, obsessively instagrammed festival in Palm Springs that Blondie played in April. The young audience lapped up Harry’s performance, for which she was joined by Nile Rodgers, her old friend and collaborator, and her mirrored bodysuit.
“Oh, I had a great time,” she says. “It was like a great homecoming. We played Rapture and then went into Backfired, which is one of my solo things from KooKoo, the album that Nile and I produced [with his fellow Chic member Bernard Edwards in 1981].”
Did she mind the forests of phones at Coachella? “I’m not complaining about the way that technology has changed our way of performing – I just happen to have known something different,” she says. “Technology is great, but I sort of wonder about everybody having an opinion. Everybody is entitled to an opinion, but some of them aren’t worth shit, you know?”
Imagine if there had been smartphone footage of the party that Warhol threw for Blondie at Studio 54 in 1979 to celebrate the release of Heart of Glass. Just typing that sentence is thrilling enough. “I can remember talking to Truman Capote and Paloma Picasso [the fashion designer and daughter of Pablo] – the name dropping could go on for a long time,” Harry says. Capote didn’t say much, and when he did she could barely hear him, she says, doing an impression of his high-pitched whisper. Heart of Glass was Blondie’s first foray into disco, which didn’t go down well with some fans and even the band’s drummer, Clem Burke, who at first refused to play it. Everyone knows it’s a banger now, though.
In 1981 the band experimented again with Rapture, Harry showing off her winning if rudimentary rhyming skills on what became the first rap-related No 1 in America. If a white artist from another genre tried their hand at hip-hop today they might be accused of cultural appropriation. “I think we were accused of that then,” Harry says with a laugh. “What the hell…” The odd rapper does pay their respects. “One of the guys from [the hardcore hip-hop duo] Mobb Deep came up and said, ‘Rapture was the first rap song I ever heard.’ It’s kind of shocking, you know?”
The early Eighties sound like a fun, if dangerous, time. At Coachella Harry and Rodgers reminisced about him taking her and Stein for rides on his boat in New York. “We were laughing about that because Nile was slightly mad at the helm, as he was driving a car, a completely deranged speed freak. On the East River in those days there was a lot of debris and shipping. He was slamming down the river and I was getting thrown around, going, ‘Is it over?'”
About this time Harry was proving herself as an actress, too, going on to star in a pair of cult classics: David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) and John Waters’s Hairspray (1988). The latter, in which she played the racist mother Velma Von Tussle, was “so naughty and so much fun”, she says. “When they yelled, ‘That’s a wrap,’ nobody wanted to stop.” So she had fun playing a bigot? “Ha ha. Well, I can’t say that I haven’t ever bumped into one.” Had she done the film today, “I would have made her even worse.”
Yet Harry has no truck with the idea that artists play safer these days. “There are always risk-takers – look at Beyoncé,” she says. “I don’t know if she’s been encouraged to take chances, but she takes chances. And she’s big enough that, you know, people are interested.”
Blondie have been recording with John Congleton, the star producer who has worked with Brian Wilson, Lana Del Ray and David Byrne. Stein, although he doesn’t tour with the band any more, “was a major contributor”. They have also done a song written for them by Johnny Marr, who wrote another of their tracks, My Monster, in 2017. Will she tell us the name of the new song? “I don’t know,” she says. “Are you going to send money to me? Ha ha!”
Punk survivors are in demand, from Blondie’s present bassist, Glen Matlock, once of the Sex Pistols, to Pop to Harry herself. “Well, I think Iggy’s a much better punk than I’ve ever been,” she says. “But I’ll do my best.” Blondie are playing the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury after Cat Stevens in the “legend” slot, and they are surely just as worthy of legendary status. “We’ve earned it,” Harry says, “We’re still playing music and being creative and that’s the essence of it all, isn’t it?”
Blondie play Glastonbury, Sunday June 25, 5pm, and Dog Day Afternoon, Crystal Palace Park, London SE19, July 1